Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Quote of the Day: Origin of life-radically new thinking needed!

This Quote of the Day on the origin of life by leading biochemist Klaus Dose in 1988, is still relevant today.

[Graphic: Model of von Neumann's self-replicating machine]

All one would need to change is the "More than 30 years" to "More than 50 years"!:

"More than 30 years of experimentation on the origin of life in the fields of chemical and molecular evolution have led to a better perception of the immensity of the problem of the origin of life on Earth rather than to its solution. At present all discussions on principal theories and experiments in the field either end in stalemate or in a confession of ignorance. New lines of thinking and experimentation must be tried." (Dose, K., "The Origin of Life: More Questions Than Answers," Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 13, No. 4, 1988, p.348. My emphasis).

The above "New lines of thinking must be tried" is, as the title of this post indicates, the point I wish to emphasise. Because in a book written ten years later in 1998 by Paul Davies on the origin of life, he concluded in similar terms, i.e. "a fully satisfactory theory of the origin of life demands some radically new ideas" (my emphasis):

"When I set out to write this book I was convinced that science was close to wrapping up the mystery of life's origin. The dramatic evidence for microbes living deep underground promised to provide the 'missing link' between the prebiotic world of biochemical soups and the first primitive cells. And it is true that many scientists working in this field confidently believe that the major problems of biogenesis have largely been solved. Several recent books convey the confident message that life's origin is not really so mysterious after all. However, I think they are wrong. Having spent a year or two researching the field I am now of the opinion that there remains a huge gulf in our understanding. To be sure, we have a good idea of the where and the when of life's origin, but we are a very long way from comprehending the how. This gulf in understanding is not merely ignorance about certain technical details, it is a major conceptual lacuna. I am not suggesting that life's origin was a supernatural event, only that we are missing something very fundamental about the whole business. If it is the case, as so many experts and commentators suggest, that life is bound to arise given the right conditions, then something truly amazing is happening in the universe, something with profound philosophical ramifications. My personal belief, for what it is worth, is that a fully satisfactory theory of the origin of life demands some radically new ideas." (Davies, P.C.W., "The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin of Life," Penguin: Ringwood NSW, Australia, 1998, pp.xvi-xvii)

However, being both materialist-naturalists what they mean is, "New lines of [materialist-naturalistic] thinking must be tried" and "demands some radically new [materialist-naturalistic] ideas"!

But the problem is that just recycling the same old materialistic-naturalistic ideas is not "radical" or "new" enough! In 1984 (before Dose's 1988 paper) Thaxton, Bradley & Olsen, in their book which is generally credited with marking the beginning of the ID movement, predicted that, "As long as this informative interference of the investigator is ignored, the illusion of prebiotic simulation will be fostered" and "this practice will prove to be a barrier to solving the mystery of life's origin":

"Over the years a slowly emerging line or boundary has appeared which shows observationally the limits of what can be expected from matter and energy left to themselves, and what can be accomplished only through what Michael Polanyi has called `a profoundly informative intervention.' [Polanyi, M., "Life Transcending Physics and Chemistry," Chemical Engineering News, August 21, 1967, pp.54-66, p.54]. When it is acknowledged that most so-called prebiotic simulation experiments actually owe their success to the crucial but illegitimate role of the investigator, a new and fresh phase of the experimental approach to life's origin can then be entered. Until then however, the literature of chemical evolution will probably continue to be dominated by reports of experiments in which the investigator, like a metabolizing Maxwell Demon, will have performed work on the system through intelligent, exogenous intervention. Such work establishes experimental boundary conditions, and imposes intelligent influence/control over a supposedly `prebiotic' earth. As long as this informative interference of the investigator is ignored, the illusion of prebiotic simulation will be fostered. We would predict that this practice will prove to be a barrier to solving the mystery of life's origin." (Thaxton, C.B., Bradley, W.L. & Olsen, R.L., "The Mystery of Life's Origin: Reassessing Current Theories," [1984], Lewis & Stanley: Dallas TX, 1992, Second Printing, p.185. Emphasis original).

And this prediction still holds good - 22 years later!

Which is not surprising, since, as the biophysicist Harold F. Blum pointed out, what is needed is a "living machine" which is "not just a mixture of chemicals" (albeit that is itself problem enough for a `blind watchmaker'!) but a Von Neumann self-replicating machine which can: 1) "spring spontaneously from a mixture of all the chemical species from which it is composed;" and then 2)replicate itself, such that 3) the replicate can replicate itself and so on ... :

"The living machine is clearly not just a mixture of chemicals, yet there seems to be widespread belief that, once the proper molecular compounds were there, life would appear, whether on the earth, on Mars, or elsewhere in the universe. This no more follows, I may point out at the risk of being thought overly facetious, than that an automobile, 1962 model, might spring spontaneously from a mixture of all the chemical species from which it is composed. …. And this machine is of a kind that is unique in our experience, for it is one that can replicate itself .... As the late John von Neumann pointed out, a machine that replicates itself can, with some difficulty be imagined; but such a machine that could originate itself offers a baffling problem which no one has as yet solved. In the present case, we are trying to understand how a self-replicating machine came into existence; this poses problems that are indeed difficult to formulate in our imagination, and should not be passed over too lightly." (Blum H.F., "Time's Arrow and Evolution," [1951], Harper Torchbooks: New York NY, Second Edition, 1955, Revised, 1962, pp.178G-178H)

That is, ID predicts that unless science adopts intelligent design as a legitimate scientific causal factor (as it is in other sciences like archaeology, forensic science and SETI) it will never solve the problem of the origin of life!

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
`Evolution Quotes Book'

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